By Sara Fullerton
After the smashing success of her book, writer Elizabeth Gilbert spent years delivering speeches that inspire listeners to identify their passion, set out in pursuit and stop at nothing. One evening after providing what she’d imagined was a wholly empowering message for her audience, though, she received the despairing message of one audience member who admitted that she had found no passion to speak of. For her, this speech which was meant to encourage had in fact confirmed all those brutal voices in her head that told her she was lazy or too old to still be unsure of her purpose.
Since then, Gilbert has spoken instead, to the lived experience of those who find themselves perpetually in search of that one magical thing that captures them in a frenzied excitement.
“In a culture that fetishizes passion, and fetishizes certainty,” Gilbert says, feeling “not totally certain” can be paralyzing. It can feel like a fundamental deficiency.
Far from meaning blandness or laziness, though, many of us — myself included — who have never felt that all-consuming pull of a single passion rather feel pulled by many interests. To commit to one is to compromise all others. We might pursue a myriad of things. Lack of that singular pursuit allows room to realize when we are not in fact as taken with something as we originally imagined. We can then look elsewhere until finding something better. While passion can be a powerful driving force, producing feats of human strength and artistic capacity, it can also be relentless, destructive and obsessive.
As Gilbert said, “It insists that it take everything out of you. Those are the terms of passion.”
Gilbert suggests that curiosity can also be a guiding force. Curiosity, she said, “Is such a gentler, kinder, more welcoming, more humane instinct than passion, and it’s so much more accessible.” Curiosity sustains. On more harrowing days, following a curiosity is not overwhelming.
Particularly at this moment of early adulthood, it seems we are constantly tasked with identifying our trajectory. Too often, this pressure feels wrapped up in proving our worth. Absence of a definitive calling becomes misinterpreted as aimlessness or disinterest.
While there is certainly value in looking to the future, trying to imagine where we will find fulfillment in years to come and planning accordingly, I think we should give ourselves permission to approach these major investigations with curiosity, lightness and a willingness to change course.
A liberal arts education builds the space to pursue a broad scope of interests and disciplines. In fact, it insists that we do so even when we feel we know exactly what our path should be.
Gilbert said curiosity-driven people bring the gift of cross-pollination to every space they occupy. She honors the path of her best friend, who, put briefly, was born in Syria, moved to Michigan as a child, emerged as a punk rock musician in her twenties, worked as a hairdresser, an international fashion stylist, a filmmaker, wrote a book and now finds herself in real estate. While varied, this multiplicity of experiences adds up perfectly to create the nuanced person that her friend is. To syphon her being into a single pursuit would have been to diminish her.
With the cultural ideology of pursuing a single passion comes a fundamental valuation of “success” or “failure” along that one measure, as though our lives have only one valid path. Gilbert challenges this notion with the possibility that “all of us never were in the wrong place.”
Perhaps we expend too much energy wondering about our path and fearing that we are on the wrong one, and what we need is some space to veer off in order to ultimately find clarity and fulfillment. Some of us know exactly what we want. Others need years of experimentation to learn what works and what doesn’t. Still others feel most inspired by ever-renewing variety.
Gilbert describes her best friend standing with a height that could only come from the “accumulated wisdom and grace and experience” of the convoluted shape of her life, as if all the places she has stood are now piled up beneath her to boost her like a stool. Striking empathy springs from having stood in so many places that no place feels so unfamiliar.